When Microsoft released Windows 8 in 2012, the operating system received an incredible amount of bad press. There were lots of good ideas, but also a lot of bad execution, and some pretty drastic changes to the old familiar way that personal computer desktops had worked since approximately 1995. Most people that voice an opinion about Windows 8 dislike it, whether it be on social media or in person. For some reason, I seem to be one of the few people who really like it. When I just recently got a new laptop at work and it came with old Windows 7, I was actually disappointed. Here is why.
I must admit that I was skeptical, but in mid-2013 I actually did get my first Windows 8 machine. A Sony Vaio Pro 13 ultrabook, with a touch screen. This gave me my first taste of Windows 8, and it was pretty jarring (as can be felt in a blog post I wrote about touch and apps back then). Still, with a touch screen it made some sense. Then Windows 8.1 arrived, and things got so much better. With Windows 8.1, it feels like Microsoft managed to sand off the hard sharp corners that made the original Windows 8 such an odd beast, and still maintain the good things.
Later, in early 2014, I built myself a new home desktop machine, and as part of that build I chose to install Windows 8.1. For a non-touch mouse-and-keyboard regular-big-screen desktop machine. It still makes sense and feels right. Then, recently, I got a new work laptop with Windows 7. Getting that new Windows 7 machine made me yearn for having Windows 8! I also recently helped my mother set up a new Ultrabook that came with a very old Windows 8.0 installation on the HDD, and that was incredibly annoying until I had it updated enough to get Windows 8.1 on it. Once Windows 8.1 was there, things started working.
Based on all of this, it is clear that what I like is Windows 8.1, not the original 8.0. If you have only tried 8.0, go use 8.1. It is really so much better! I am less certain about Windows 8.1 update 1. It adds some useful features, but it also makes Metro apps behave in a somewhat less appealing way.
So why do I like Windows 8.1?
Maybe most noticably, Windows 8 is fast. I am constantly impressed by how my Ultrabook and Windows 8 desktop can reboot in seconds. Waiting for Windows 7 to get through BIOS and setup and get to the login screen feels like eternity in comparison. The combination of UEFI BIOS with Windows 8 is very impressive. When I built that machine of mine, I managed to mess things up quite a few times, but reinstalling Windows 8 was a breeze each time I swapped the disks around and decided on a different usage model. Updates that require a reboot do not bother me at all, while it used to be a royal pain on Vista and Windows 7.
I like the home screen. The start menu was very cramped and a really stupid use of real estate. Small menus made sense back in days when pushing pixels was expensive (I have written software on a 68000-based Mac on MacOS 6, so I know just how hard this was to do way back then). Today, redrawing a 1920×1080 screen is a non-issue. So why not use all that space for something useful? Hitting “Windows” and getting back to start makes perfect sense when you are used to iPhones and Android devices – it is just very logical to have a useful home screen as the at-rest state rather than an empty desktop as it is in traditional Windows. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if I should not have paid the extra money and got a convertible that could also do business
The live tiles add real value, and give me something similar to the “at a glance” power of Android widgets. The many different sizes available let me cram lots of applications into some groups where all I use are the smallest icons, while other groups contain a few large tiles that provide instant updates. The customizability where you put the most commonly used programs where you want them is much better than the old “pin to start menu” system of Windows 7 – with a scrolling home screen and groups, you can get real order to your applications. In Windows 7, it was just putting a few things on a shortlist – not at all as expressive. The introduction of the smaller tiles in Windows 8.1 made this really feasible even for large numbers of applications.
The “type to search” interaction model of the home screen has also proven to be very efficient. I know this feature is there in Windows 7 too – but it just does not work as well or feel as natural. In Windows 8, the results come up faster and are more reasonable. Windows 7 is very picky about having to type the start of a program right, while Windows 8 picks up programs even if you only type some middle part of the name. Very efficient, and in many ways a more modern way to interact than the old search around tons of nested menus.
I still have the desktop and get real work done like I always have. This is a crucial part of Windows to me – I have to be able to work in a real desktop environment with lots of fiddly icons and efficient use of space. Touch-unfriendly program designs like Word, Powerpoint, Eclipse, Emacs, Thunderbird are key to getting the job done, and Windows 8 is still a perfectly executed mouse-and-keyboard system. Where I can also use touch on the screen to scroll around when doing more reading than writing. Windows 8.1 really improved this aspect of the operating system.
Windows 8 looks nice. I like the Windows 8 look, with the big colorful icons and background image. The live themes that change the background finally feel like they make sense (I am currently enjoying the Nordic Landscapes). The fonts are nice, and the overall experience feels brighter and more modern than Windows 7. It is not perfect (like the yellow prompts at login being almost unreadable on my preferred orange background), but it is pretty good.
Obviously, as with all systems, there are things that are not perfect – such as the insistence of Windows 8 that I login with a Microsoft account on all machines and the resulting synchronization of colors and background images across all my machines. I would like to have different settings on different machines to keep them apart visually. The difference between Metro applications and regular desktop applications does not feel quite right, but it still works. In practice, I have spent almost all my time in desktop apps, since Firefox and Thunderbird rejected becoming Metro apps.
Overall, however, I find Windows 8.1 to be a real improvement over Windows 7, and is the operating system that I do prefer today for desktop machines. Really, I you think about the start screen as just a way to make a better start menu and work on the desktop, the difference is not that big compared to the traditional desktop model. With the added bonus of Metro apps and some powerful new features.